"The sky is open to the stars. Clouds roll over us night and day. Oceans rise and fall. Whatever you may have heard, this is our world, our place to be. Whatever you've been told, our flags fly free. Our heart goes on forever. People of Earth, remember."*
No kidding, it really says that.
The body of the Manifesto is 95 truisms about marketing in the Internet era, modestly patterned after Martin Luther's 95 Theses that sparked the Protestant Reformation. This implied equivalence between web browsing and one of the founding documents of western civilization is a priceless example of the attitudes that prevailed in the Bubble era.
At the time of its creation, the Cluetrain Manifesto created quite a stir in the online community. Many prominent tech managers signed it, and it was turned into a book.
Seven years later, you don't hear much about the Cluetrain Manifesto. And yet, it's still a very useful document.
Parts of it are silly, and parts of it are just plain wrong. But a lot of it is brilliant. Once you pare away the BS and the posturing, it's a great document on the new world of Internet communication, and much of its advice is just as relevant and insightful today as it was in 1999. Maybe more so, because the technologies involved have matured.
Most companies marketing online still ignore the Cluetrain's advice, to their detriment. Over at Rubicon Consulting, we've been trying to combine the best ideas of the manifesto with our own thinking, to create a short document that companies could use to guide their online communication. You're welcome to check out what we've written; we'd appreciate your comments and suggestions.
I know it's presumptuous to mess around with an Internet icon like the Manifesto, but the original is too flawed and too weird to be taken seriously by most companies.
What I want to do here is take a leisurely walk through the 95 points of the original Cluetrain, pointing out the parts that work and those that don't. Fair warning, this is a very long post. But I hope you'll enjoy the hike...
1. Markets are conversations.
An outstanding observation, but it needs an amendment: Online markets can be conversations. Most companies still market in the traditional way, using traditional marketing tools. They get into trouble when they take their traditional marketing reflexes into the online world. Because online media can be two-way, it's very insulting to use it in a one-way manner (for example, e-mail messages that don't allow answers, or weblogs that don't allow comments). That's as rude as refusing to respond to questions at a cocktail party. And people online often take the insult personally.
2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
True. And a corollary is that because every human being is an individual, no one belongs to a single market. We're each members of a unique rainbow of different markets. Maybe you're a Volvo owner and also a fisherman. The web lets you play both roles, and lets Volvo and a fly fishing outfitter speak to you directly in each role.
In the old marketing world, we had to market to big segments like "males 18-25 years old" because mass media couldn't slice people any finer than that. When you're marketing online, mass market segments are irrelevant and inefficient because you can target much more finely.
Forget about the Long Tail – the online world is all tail.
3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
This needs some translation. The web lets you have conversations with your customers. You shouldn't put those conversations in the tone of a press release. Therefore, don't let your lawyers and PR agency write your online messages. Corporate-speak stands out online like a dead fish, and can be detected at the same distance.
4. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
5. People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.
6. The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.
See point 3. In places the Cluetrain gets kind of repetitive. You get the feeling they were stretching it to get up to 95 items.
7. Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.
Um, okay, I guess. Maybe this sounded revolutionary in 1999; now it's kind of quaint. Like listening to speeches by the hippies in People's Park in Berkeley.
8. In both internetworked markets and among intranetworked employees, people are speaking to each other in a powerful new way.
9. These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.
Okay. That's a little bit pompous, but there's truth in it.
10. As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.
The real changes are just starting. Most people are not deeply engaged with online conversations, so the online impact on market behavior is spotty. If you're not careful, your online conversations can be diverted by enthusiasts who aren't a good proxy for the rest of the world. Remember Snakes on a Plane.
11. People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors. So much for corporate rhetoric about adding value to commoditized products.
This is just starting, and it's not always true. But there are cases in which the user community does indeed deliver better support than companies. I think the WordPress blogging tool is a good example.
12. There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.
Yes and no. Definitely the Web gives a much louder voice to product enthusiasts outside of companies, so word about product flaws circulates faster than it did pre-Internet. But it's just a change in speed. Back before the Internet, there were these things called newspapers and magazines that were pretty good at spreading product information quickly.
And with the application of enough money and effort, it's still possible to keep secrets. Look at Apple.
13. What's happening to markets is also happening among employees. A metaphysical construct called "The Company" is the only thing standing between the two.
Companies aren't just metaphysical constructs. They are organizations that pay employees money, and so they have a certain coercive power that markets can't match. I think there's a strain of wishful thinking in the Manifesto – because a lot of online people don't like traditional corporations, they're inclined to believe scenarios in which the corporation withers away. But I personally need to see the evidence to back up that belief, and it's lacking.
14. Corporations do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, companies sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman.
Another repeat of point #3.
15. In just a few more years, the current homogenized "voice" of business—the sound of mission statements and brochures—will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.
Well, it has been more than a few years since the Manifesto came out. Most corporations still speak in he same language, and they don't sound any weirder than they did in 1999.
Online, corporate-speak does sound weird. But in traditional media it sounds normal. The authors were making the mistake of thinking that the Internet was the future of all media. It's not – it's a series of new media that will live alongside the old ones for a long time.
16. Already, companies that speak in the language of the pitch, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone.
17. Companies that assume online markets are the same markets that used to watch their ads on television are kidding themselves.
Wow, we go straight from a statement that was stupid to one that's very insightful. Because of its potential for personalization and direct communication, the web destroys traditional market segmentation. It creates (or maybe more accurately, it brings to light) a lot of small vertical markets in place of a few big mass markets.
18. Companies that don't realize their markets are now networked person-to-person, getting smarter as a result and deeply joined in conversation are missing their best opportunity.
That only applies to the customers who are deeply networked online – a small segment of the population at present. Come back in a generation and this statement will be much more true. For now we're in a transition.
But it sure is an opportunity.
19. Companies can now communicate with their markets directly. If they blow it, it could be their last chance.
Um, no. A company gets an infinite number of last chances until some competitor wipes it out. Unfortunately, it's very hard to predict when that will happen, so companies that misuse online marketing are playing Russian roulette.
20. Companies need to realize their markets are often laughing. At them.
Translation: Companies need to realize that a relatively small number of people online are laughing at them. But those people sometimes create YouTube videos that get forwarded all over the place, so you gotta watch out anyway.
21. Companies need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They need to get a sense of humor.
Unfortunately, most people aren't great at creating jokes. If they were, Robin Williams would be unemployed. I think what companies need to do is relax and act like themselves. If their reality is that they're a bit stern and somber, that's OK – as long as it's genuine.
Nothing is more pathetic than a CEO trying to pretend that he or she is hip. This is why you don't ever see Bill Gates break-dancing.
22. Getting a sense of humor does not mean putting some jokes on the corporate web site. Rather, it requires big values, a little humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view.
OK, you're not really talking about humor at all. So why did you say to get a sense of humor?
23. Companies attempting to "position" themselves need to take a position. Optimally, it should relate to something their market actually cares about.
24. Bombastic boasts—"We are positioned to become the preeminent provider of XYZ"—do not constitute a position.
25. Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.
26. Public Relations does not relate to the public. Companies are deeply afraid of their markets.
There's a nugget of absolute truth in that last point. Many companies are deathly afraid of having an uncontrolled conversation with their customers, mostly because they expect to be overwhelmed by complaints. Ironically, the best way to reduce complaints is to listen to them and respond. You can turn most complainants into fans pretty easily, if you're just polite and respectful to them. Try apologizing when you've made a mistake – it does wonders for a marriage, and it can help a customer relationship as well.
The Internet is a great tool for having this sort of conversation.
27. By speaking in language that is distant, uninviting, arrogant, they build walls to keep markets at bay.
This isn't even a full sentence, and it just repeats the previous points.
28. Most marketing programs are based on the fear that the market might see what's really going on inside the company.
That's occasionally true, but the word "most" is a gross exaggeration and hurts the credibility of the manifesto. Most marketing programs are like someone going on a first date – you try to make yourself look good, and accentuate your best qualities. Most people (and most companies) won't outright lie, and fear is not companies' greatest motivation.
29. Elvis said it best: "We can't go on together with suspicious minds."
Cute. Meaningless, but cute.
30. Brand loyalty is the corporate version of going steady, but the breakup is inevitable—and coming fast. Because they are networked, smart markets are able to renegotiate relationships with blinding speed.
No, no, no, no. This point implies that brand marketing is coming to an end. Brand marketing will evolve because of the Web, but well-run brands can and will develop deeper and more meaningful relationships with their customers. At the risk of over-stressing the metaphor, they can go from going steady to getting married.
I think that the manifesto went wrong on this one because a lot of the online crowd views branding as a form of pure evil; they think it clouds consumers' minds to the reality of product features. But most human beings aren't wired that way. They like being associated with a brand that shares their values, because it says something about them. The Web makes it possible to communicate values more thoroughly, so the bonds to a brand can be deeper.
31. Networked markets can change suppliers overnight. Networked knowledge workers can change employers over lunch. Your own "downsizing initiatives" taught us to ask the question: "Loyalty? What's that?"
The first two sentences are exaggerations. In particular, unless a company is selling only on price, the Internet doesn't make customers any more mobile than they were in the past. But if you are selling just on price, watch out. All the more reason to use the Internet to form deeper ties with your customers.
The third sentence is true, by the way. The way I'd put it: "Never love a company -- it can't love you back."
32. Smart markets will find suppliers who speak their own language.
I don't know what a smart market is. Markets can't be smart, people can be smart. People will indeed gravitate to suppliers who speak their language. But the outcome of this is going to be different than the online crowd expects – a lot more people speak the language of Wal-Mart than speak the language of Fry's.
33. Learning to speak with a human voice is not a parlor trick. It can't be "picked up" at some tony conference.
34. To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities.
35. But first, they must belong to a community.
Yes!! Those are two of the best points in the whole manifesto.
36. Companies must ask themselves where their corporate cultures end.
37. If their cultures end before the community begins, they will have no market.
38. Human communities are based on discourse—on human speech about human concerns.
39. The community of discourse is the market.
This is all pretty good. Item 37 is overblown, and I'm not sure what 39 means, but the ideas here are powerful.
40. Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.
Dang, back to the overstatement. Companies can survive without belonging to a community of discourse. For example, if they're the cheapest supplier people will buy from them even if they are rude to their customers (if there's a Fry's in your town, go there on a Friday night and try to get customer service).
But companies will get higher margins, make better decisions, and have more loyal customers if they participate in communities with them.
41. Companies make a religion of security, but this is largely a red herring. Most are protecting less against competitors than against their own market and workforce.
No. That's another gross exaggeration that hurts the credibility of the whole document.
First, not all companies make a religion of security. Second, companies want security for a lot of reasons. Competitive concerns have a lot to do with it, but so do financial regulations on stockholder lawsuits. And yes, there is some paranoia involved too.
The important point – the one the Manifesto fails to make – is that the benefits of heavy information security are outweighed by the advantages of open discourse with customers. When you're online, it's more efficient to be open.
42. As with networked markets, people are also talking to each other directly inside the company—and not just about rules and regulations, boardroom directives, bottom lines.
Uh, yeah. But that's been true since the first corporation was formed.
43. Such conversations are taking place today on corporate intranets. But only when the conditions are right.
The conversations also happen in lunchrooms, hallways, and next to water coolers. They move a little faster on intranets, but the difference is not enormous.
The benefits of intranets for driving internal conversations in corporations are substantial, but are not as great as they are for driving conversations with and among customers. Before the Internet, company employees still had lots of ways to communicate. There were even jokes about corporate gossip being the only thing that travels faster than light.
44. Companies typically install intranets top-down to distribute HR policies and other corporate information that workers are doing their best to ignore.
That's so stupid. Companies generally installed intranets to exchange e-mail. File servers and web access came later. HR policies were the almost last thing to go electronic, because HR teams are usually not very technical. Even today, in many companies you're more likely to get paper memos from HR than from just about any other company department. Paper feels more official to them.
Sometimes it seems like the Manifesto authors' main experience of corporate life was reading Dilbert.
45. Intranets naturally tend to route around boredom. The best are built bottom-up by engaged individuals cooperating to construct something far more valuable: an intranetworked corporate conversation.
A typical engineer's point of view, since they're the only ones in the corporation capable of building their own intranets.
46. A healthy intranet organizes workers in many meanings of the word. Its effect is more radical than the agenda of any union.
First sentence is good, second sentence is dumb. A union is very different from an intranet, and has very different effects. One's not more radical than the other. That's like saying a dog is more radical than a cat.
47. While this scares companies witless, they also depend heavily on open intranets to generate and share critical knowledge. They need to resist the urge to "improve" or control these networked conversations.
Oh, please. Intranets don't scare most companies witless.
48. When corporate intranets are not constrained by fear and legalistic rules, the type of conversation they encourage sounds remarkably like the conversation of the networked marketplace.
Yes, but that's because engineers and technophiles tend to dominate the online conversation both outside and inside corporations.
49. Org charts worked in an older economy where plans could be fully understood from atop steep management pyramids and detailed work orders could be handed down from on high.
Org charts are still mandatory in any corporation, because they designate who controls the salaries of whom.
There's a nugget of wisdom here, though. The Internet makes it possible for information to move more quickly, and for groups of smart people to coordinate their work directly. A properly designed company, taking advantage of electronic communication, requires much less detailed hierarchical control.
But somebody still has to write the performance reviews.
50. Today, the org chart is hyperlinked, not hierarchical. Respect for hands-on knowledge wins over respect for abstract authority.
It isn't either-or. There's still an org chart, but there's also an informal network of people who share information and sometimes agendas. But that has always been true of corporations, an intranet just makes it more visible.
Every generation thinks its parents were stupid, and in the second sentence you hear some baby boomers saying their parents had too much respect for abstract authority. Go read some books, guys. See how soldiers in World War II felt about abstract authority in the military, or how workers in 1910 felt about their bosses. Better yet, read the US Declaration of Independence and pay attention to the part where they talk about the king.
51. Command-and-control management styles both derive from and reinforce bureaucracy, power tripping and an overall culture of paranoia.
52. Paranoia kills conversation. That's its point. But lack of open conversation kills companies.
This is just posturing.
53. There are two conversations going on. One inside the company. One with the market.
There are an almost infinite number of conversations going on. The Internet can actually reduce the number of conversations, because it consolidates them.
54. In most cases, neither conversation is going very well. Almost invariably, the cause of failure can be traced to obsolete notions of command and control.
55. As policy, these notions are poisonous. As tools, they are broken. Command and control are met with hostility by intranetworked knowledge workers and generate distrust in internetworked markets.
56. These two conversations want to talk to each other. They are speaking the same language. They recognize each other's voices.
57. Smart companies will get out of the way and help the inevitable to happen sooner.
This thinking is dangerous, and not in a good sense. There's an idealized agenda in operation here, an assumption that bosses are stupid and that companies will make better decisions if the average employee talks directly to the average customer, and they then make a collective decision on what the company should do.
The reality is that bosses are sometimes stupid, and in those cases the company will indeed do better work if the bosses are bypassed. But those companies generally go broke eventually anyway.
In a well-managed company, it's important to draw a line between listening to input and making decisions collectively. Listening to input is almost always good. The internet can make for better input, meaning better decisions. That's fantastic. But making the actual decisions collectively is usually bad, because collective decisions reflect a compromised consensus. Products designed according to that process are often over-featured because they try to please everyone. An example: the Sony Clie handheld was beloved by online users but failed in the marketplace. Why? Too many features, too hard to use.
Companies are most effective when they have smart management, and that management has the authority to make clear decisions and have them carried out by the staff. If the Internet undercuts that, it's not helping the company or the customers.
58. If willingness to get out of the way is taken as a measure of IQ, then very few companies have yet wised up.
Companies don't have IQs. Their managers do. And a company manager who passively "gets out of the way" and lets the market drive his or her decisions is not doing a good job.
59. However subliminally at the moment, millions of people now online perceive companies as little more than quaint legal fictions that are actively preventing these conversations from intersecting.
60. This is suicidal. Markets want to talk to companies.
No, people want to talk to people. And it's good to enable that. But the company still has a role to play, and it needs its own decision-making.
61. Sadly, the part of the company a networked market wants to talk to is usually hidden behind a smokescreen of hucksterism, of language that rings false—and often is.
Translation: Come the revolution, the first thing we'll do is shoot all the marketing and PR employees. Spoken like a true engineer.
62. Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall.
If you substitute "customers" for "markets," this one is true.
63. De-cloaking, getting personal: We are those markets. We want to talk to you.
64. We want access to your corporate information, to your plans and strategies, your best thinking, your genuine knowledge. We will not settle for the 4-color brochure, for web sites chock-a-block with eye candy but lacking any substance.
65. We're also the workers who make your companies go. We want to talk to customers directly in our own voices, not in platitudes written into a script.
66. As markets, as workers, both of us are sick to death of getting our information by remote control. Why do we need faceless annual reports and third-hand market research studies to introduce us to each other?
67. As markets, as workers, we wonder why you're not listening. You seem to be speaking a different language.
68. The inflated self-important jargon you sling around—in the press, at your conferences—what's that got to do with us?
69. Maybe you're impressing your investors. Maybe you're impressing Wall Street. You're not impressing us.
70. If you don't impress us, your investors are going to take a bath. Don't they understand this? If they did, they wouldn't let you talk that way.
71. Your tired notions of "the market" make our eyes glaze over. We don't recognize ourselves in your projections—perhaps because we know we're already elsewhere.
72. We like this new marketplace much better. In fact, we are creating it.
73. You're invited, but it's our world. Take your shoes off at the door. If you want to barter with us, get down off that camel!
This is the weakest part of the Manifesto, in my opinion. The authors complain about flack, posturing, and exaggeration, and then go on an exaggerated rant full of posturing. Nothing to see here, let's move along...
74. We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.
Yeah, sure. Tell it to Google.
Reality: Most people don't like advertising. That's not the same thing as being immune to it. If people really were immune to advertising, companies wouldn't do it.
75. If you want us to talk to you, tell us something. Make it something interesting for a change.
76. We've got some ideas for you too: some new tools we need, some better service. Stuff we'd be willing to pay for. Got a minute?
Good! But keep in mind that the people you can reach online are not normal customers. They'll have lots of ideas, but unfortunately they can't speak for your typical users.
77. You're too busy "doing business" to answer our email? Oh gosh, sorry, gee, we'll come back later. Maybe.
Yes. Very well said.
78. You want us to pay? We want you to pay attention.
79. We want you to drop your trip, come out of your neurotic self-involvement, join the party.
80. Don't worry, you can still make money. That is, as long as it's not the only thing on your mind.
81. Have you noticed that, in itself, money is kind of one-dimensional and boring? What else can we talk about?
Groovy, baby. Join the love-in. This is starting to feel like that old episode of Star Trek, where Spock meets the space hippies.
82. Your product broke. Why? We'd like to ask the guy who made it. Your corporate strategy makes no sense. We'd like to have a chat with your CEO. What do you mean she's not in?
Fair enough. Now that it's possible to have candid conversations online, it'll be perceived as rude not to have them. Most companies haven't realized that yet.
83. We want you to take 50 million of us as seriously as you take one reporter from The Wall Street Journal.
Believe me, every company takes 50 million customers more seriously than one Wall Street Journal reporter. But most of them haven't yet figured out how to talk to 50 million people online.
84. We know some people from your company. They're pretty cool online. Do you have any more like that you're hiding? Can they come out and play?
85. When we have questions we turn to each other for answers. If you didn't have such a tight rein on "your people" maybe they'd be among the people we'd turn to.
I agree with these. Most companies would come across better online if they allowed employees to communicate freely on the web. You can create some sensible guidelines (don't pre-announce products, label opinions as your own), and trust that most people will follow them. And if they don't, fire them.
Being open personalizes your company, helps people feel good about it, and helps you make better decisions. The benefits of this outweigh the risks.
86. When we're not busy being your "target market," many of us are your people. We'd rather be talking to friends online than watching the clock. That would get your name around better than your entire million dollar web site. But you tell us speaking to the market is Marketing's job.
The answer here is not to get rid of marketing, it's to teach marketing how to operate in this new world. Because, in reality, the engineers do have some other tasks they need to focus on.
87. We'd like it if you got what's going on here. That'd be real nice. But it would be a big mistake to think we're holding our breath.
88. We have better things to do than worry about whether you'll change in time to get our business. Business is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours. Think about it: who needs whom?
Again with the posturing.
89. We have real power and we know it. If you don't quite see the light, some other outfit will come along that's more attentive, more interesting, more fun to play with.
Translation: "We are arrogant and we don't know it. We think we represent all customers when in fact we represent a slice of them. Companies would be stupid to take all our rhetoric at face value. But our influence is growing, it would also be stupid to ignore the potential we represent. We are noisy, we influence a lot of purchases, and we're increasing in number."
90. Even at its worst, our newfound conversation is more interesting than most trade shows, more entertaining than any TV sitcom, and certainly more true-to-life than the corporate web sites we've been seeing.
Well, it is to those of us who like to read and write blogs. But a lot more people watch TV. So in the real world companies will have to deal with both.
91. Our allegiance is to ourselves—our friends, our new allies and acquaintances, even our sparring partners. Companies that have no part in this world, also have no future.
92. Companies are spending billions of dollars on Y2K. Why can't they hear this market timebomb ticking? The stakes are even higher.
Well, that one's a tad dated now.
93. We're both inside companies and outside them. The boundaries that separate our conversations look like the Berlin Wall today, but they're really just an annoyance. We know they're coming down. We're going to work from both sides to take them down.
94. To traditional corporations, networked conversations may appear confused, may sound confusing. But we are organizing faster than they are. We have better tools, more new ideas, no rules to slow us down.
95. We are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching. But we are not waiting.
At this point you really expect John Lennon to stroll in with a guitar, singing Imagine...
Lessons from the Cluetrain
Don't be pretentious. Unless you're writing the Declaration of Independence for a new republic, you should leave out the cosmic rhetoric. It's ironic that a document telling people to speak like humans contains so much trippy rhetoric. (Or maybe that's how the Manifesto's authors really talk.)
Be careful with timelines. Like almost all tech commentary written in the bubble period, the Manifesto assumes that the Internet is about to take over all communication and be used by all human beings. In the real world it's growing, but other media will continue to exist alongside it for a very long time.
The Web is an accelerator more than a revolutionary. The Web speeds up conversations, and broadens their audiences. That's very important, and sometimes the increase in speed produces a qualitative difference. But our parents and grandparents were pretty clever, and most of the human principles we think we're pioneering online have actually been around for generations.
Keep it short. Ten commandments are a lot more memorable than 95 manifestos.
In that spirit, at Rubicon we've been working on a set of principles for communicating with people online, combining our thinking and what we think are the best ideas in the Manifesto. Here's our list:
1. Engage, don't sell.
2. Speak as individuals.
3. Be yourself.
4. Never lie.
5. Don't be afraid of passion.
6. Set your employees free.
7. The Internet strengthens great brands – and destroys false ones.
8. Forget about mass markets.
9. Remember that the Internet is still evolving.
10. Don't mistake the Web for the real world.
They're not nearly as colorful as the Manifesto, but I hope they'll be more actionable. You can read the details here.
*As pointed out by the authors of the Gluetrain Manifesto (a satire of the Cluetrain), it's hard to have the sky open to the stars when clouds are rolling over you all the time. But let's not quibble. The Gluetrain is no longer available online, but a copy was printed at the end of a Cap Gemini / Ernst & Young document here. If you want to understand what the Cluetrain authors meant by that "clouds and skies" imagery, there's an essay here that sort of explains.